Working in the business education industry is great. Even if it’s by proxy, we get to stay on the cutting edge of workplace trends and advances in the kinds of skills people need to be successful at work. But … I have a confession. I have real issues with the distinction between “soft” skills and “hard” skills. Not that I don’t think there’s a difference, but it’s the terminology. The United States Department of Labor lists soft skills as Communication; Enthusiasm and Attitude; Teamwork; Networking; Problem Solving and Critical Thinking; and Professionalism.
Soft skills could use a better public relations company
Ask ANY hiring manager, executive or supervisor and they will state unequivocally that every one of those soft skills is critical to success in today’s business environment. Having been in seminar marketing for nearly 25 years, I know that every time I talk about these skills in a marketing piece, I have to sell my reader on why they need to improve them when it should be an easy sell to them and their boss. Basically, soft skills have an image problem and we need to change that.
“Hard” skills don’t have that image problem. “Hard” implies concreteness, conviction and measurability. You have that knowledge, you have that skill, and you are hired to use that knowledge and perform that skill and bring value to the company. Don’t get me wrong … hard skills are essential, because without skill and knowledge nothing gets done.
But, selling people on learning something such as advanced Excel® tips takes a fraction of the marketing effort. The pitch can often be as simple as: “Come to this class … we’ll teach you A, B, C, D and E about this software and you’ll get much more done in less time with a lot fewer headaches.” Boom. Done. Training budget dollars are more easily spent when you can attach a monetary value on the other end.
Your company superstars have a perfect blend of both skills
Today, relying solely on hard skills won’t get the job done either. As we move towards a more virtual and collaborative work space, I would make the case that soft skills are more essential than hard skills. After all, when breakdowns or conflicts happen at your company, is it because your employees didn’t have the specific knowledge or hard skill to do the job? Not usually.
We can determine hard skills fairly easily and get people in the right jobs. Failures are far more likely to arise when there’s a communication breakdown, a toxic team dynamic or a lack of critical thinking. Soft skills don’t seem so soft when you think about it that way.
Maybe part of the problem is that it is hard to put a price on soft skills in a concrete way? Using our Excel® example, I could rationalize that it used to take me 20 minutes to do this thrice-daily task, but after training, it now takes me 10 minutes. That’s a savings of 30 minutes of my time a day … 150 minutes per week … and 125 hours for my 50-week work year. Easy peasy to quantify. But how do you calculate your positive and infectious team attitude?
More companies are seeking more balance for employees
Today, most companies are valued through the quality of their employees just as much as, if not more than, the amount of their hard assets these days. Why do you think the companies that make the “20 Best Places to Work in [name of city here]” lists all have them posted in their lobbies when you walk in? It’s because being a “Best of” workplace often swings a recruit’s decision to work for you instead of your competition when looking for new talent. In addition, it keeps the employees you have onboard.
The value you place on your employees is reflected in their overall engagement and motivation, as well as your company’s ability to execute, innovate, adapt, and ultimately grow. Best of all, generally the best-loved companies are usually the healthiest, both emotionally and financially. It becomes the corporate culture.
I’ve now reached an age (50+) where work culture is the most important thing to me. But I’m not alone in that. Millennials get a ton of grief for many things, but give them credit. When they were transitioning to become the largest part of the workforce, they demanded changes in corporate culture from what Baby Boomers and Gen Xers lived with. Now, it’s not just Millennials that want work to be some place to achieve balance instead of a steady paycheck.
Real world shortsightedness about soft skills
I applied for a writing job with another company a couple of years ago. Despite my two decades-long track record of successful work, the hiring manager was hung up on the fact that I had never used—and thereby didn’t know HOW to use—an important content management software they utilized. She didn’t seem to want my experience, my soft skills or the gray hair at my temples. After all, everyone knows that each gray hair on your head equates to you being an idiot that can’t possibly comprehend that “computer box” thing on your desk. (Yes, that was sarcasm tinged with a splash of anger!)
Forget the fact that it might have taken me a couple of weeks to learn the software. And maybe a month to become highly proficient at it. I didn’t get the job, but also wasn’t exactly torn up about it. If she was an example of their company culture, I didn’t need to see anything else. Ironically, the same job opening keeps opening up at that company about every six months. My evil side just smiles every time I see that. Nah … I’m not vindictive, am I?
So next time you hear the term “soft skills,” know how important they really are. Just because they are badly named doesn’t mean they aren’t vital to your organization’s success.